Note: This is the original, unedited version of an article I was invited to write for The Santa Fe Reporter’s “Annual Manual,” a guide for residents and visitors to Santa Fe. Though the published version has been beautifully edited, there are some additional moments in the original version that you will hopefully find interesting. To see the published article, click HERE or click on the image of the article below.
Some years back, before the labyrinth on Museum Hill became a permanent installation, it was an informal earth-formed hieroglyphic of dirt and stone. In contrast with the orderly, angled museums in its environs, the labyrinth was round, mysterious and womblike. My son, then in elementary school, and I would walk over there on warm summer evenings through the arroyo behind the Folk Art Museum, and when we arrived, we had a silent ritual.
At the threshold to the labyrinth, Daniel would make a formal bow and then, like a human-sized praying mantis, he’d practice his karate katas in slow-motion, like a meditation, through its serpentine pathways. I sat to the side and while I watched him with a soft focus, in the periphery of my vision were the majestic Jemez Mountains to the west and the soft, undulating foothills of the Sangres to the northeast.
I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC. By my early-twenties I felt I would come unhinged if I went much longer without seeing stars and mountains and observing the phases of the moon. I made my escape to an island in the Spanish Mediterranean, a special place that smelled of rosemary, juniper and sea salt. That idle ended after four years when my father, back in the U.S., became gravely ill. My expatriate friends on the island said: “If you decide to stay in the U.S., go to Santa Fe. It’s like it is here. You’ll feel free there.”
My dad died a year later, and my then-husband and I wondered: Should we go back to Spain? That didn’t feel right: Our family was broken-hearted after my dad’s death; I wanted to be on the same continent as my mom and siblings. We had a world map on a wall in our house and one day we decided to play “pin the tail on the world map.” I closed my eyes, Christopher spun me around and then nudged me in the general direction of the map. I stumbled forward and smacked my index finger on our destination and our destiny: “Santa Fe, New Mexico.” “Huh?” he said. “Isn’t that where our friends in Ibiza told us to go?” Yes, it was. There are uncountable, magical stories of synchronicity and coincidence accounting for how we transplanted people end up here in Santa Fe, and that is mine.
Santa Fe is is a place where the veils between the world of human concerns and the world of spirit are thin. Like the Peruvian altiplano and the mountains of Tibet, it’s easy to sense the presence of the non-physical dimensions and of the divine. It’s why many of us are drawn here, and it may account for why Santa Fe has been almost-continually inhabited for 11, 000 years and has especially appealed to non-Native spiritual seekers for well over a century.
Like all towns and cities, Santa Fe has an obvious physical footprint, but not all cities have as obvious a spiritual footprint. Architects and interior designers know that where we live has the power to shape our consciousness, and that’s my experience, too.
In indigenous, shamanic cultures, it is understood that everything is alive and has a spirit. It is also understood that the entire natural world is alive inside each one of us. Perched on the edge of the Rio Grande rift, Santa Fe’s natural palate, like its diverse human population, ranges from sedate to wild. I find comfort in how the cholla cactus, yucca, chamisa, alpine meadows, apricot trees and aspens reflect the dry, rocky, wild and flowering places inherent in my own psyche. I take it as a personal benediction when I see the hawk that frequents the Russian Olive tree outside my office window, or when Mr. and Mrs. Quail and family skedaddle past the white-lillied datura by my garage door. When a coyote or bobcat comes to visit, I stop whatever I’m doing and pay attention. As a shamanic practitioner and ceremonialist, I’ve learned to be a tracker of “signs” in both my inner and outer worlds. This is so easy to do in Santa Fe.
What I’ve found is that what I see outside of me, especially if I choose to be in conscious relationship with it, will ultimately give me a walking trail into my personal depths.
For most of us, the bedrock of our emotional lives lies in our relationships with friends, partners, family. Here in Santa Fe, I’ve noticed that so many milestones in my emotional life have been associated with the seasons, the night sky, the landscape or mountain range in the closest proximity. I have been betrayed at the time of the ripening corn in August, I’ve been loved when the planet Venus was within kissing distance from the moon. So many memorable moments here have taken place in the shelter and foreground of something huge, and that “something huge” has been nature. When I grew up in the Washington, DC area, I associated the emotional landmarks of my young life with certain houses, buildings, neighborhoods and even political events. In Santa Fe, the backdrop of these pivotal moments has been nature. The luminous night sky reminds me that I am comfortingly little and that life and all its possibilities are vast and generous.
Santa Fe is potently linked to its historical and spiritual past (primarily Anasazi, Pueblo Indian, Spanish, Converso-Jews); it is a powerful place either to be at the effect of, or to unravel, our ancestral identities and demons. It is also a good place to forge relationships with new ones. In the decades I’ve been here, Santa Fe has linked me to my personal and ancestral past: I’ve celebrated La Virgen de Guadalupe (flash back to five years old, with my Mexican grandmother Concha, lighting candles at the ancient, sinking Basilica de La Virgen in Mexico City); in my early years here I spent hours sitting in the zendo at Upaya, meditating and chanting the Heart Sutra with Roshi Joan Halifax (flash back to my first three years of life living in Japan and my dad’s love of all things Zen and Asian). And, as a shamanic healer and facilitator of seasonal ceremonies, I am weaving a thread forward from my great-grandmother Báltazara, who was the curandera (still remembered!) in the one-dirt-road pueblo in El Sauce, Nicaragua. I have participated in Lakota, Yoruba, Celtic, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist ceremonies, and it’s not because I’m an undecided seeker grazing at an overly-abundant buffet; it’s because each of these flavors of spirituality satisfies a hungry place in my soul.
A full-spectrum natural landscape, like a spiritually-rich inner life, includes both light and shadow. Indeed, our local history has a lot to teach us and remind us about greed and goodness, beauty and pain, violence and harmony. To reap the lessons and blessings of Santa Fe, be prepared to encounter both the light and the darkness of yourself. If you allow them, the land, the animals and the ancestral spirits here will teach you.
Back at the labyrinth on Museum Hill, my son would soon arrive at the open, uncomplicated space at the center of the pattern. And then, he, too would sit cross-legged facing the west as the summer sun was setting. We sat there on those summer evenings in the warm belly space of “The Dancing Ground of the Sun,” as the ancient, Native people called Santa Fe, surrounded by the museums that bear witness to the local cultures that were and are with us still: The Indian Arts & Culture and Wheelwright Museums, the Spanish Colonial Art Museum, the International Folk Art Museum. And the labyrinth itself provided a distant echo of medieval Europe and of the petroglyph spirals found all over the Southwest.
The encircling mountains around us have witnessed darkness, violence, beauty and illumination. With all of this, we live together in this special town, this Plateau Different. Like the labyrinth, these diverse cultures have become woven into one continuous human journey. And I believe, like the labyrinth, these convoluted pathways may lead us all to one place: that common ground in the center of the circle, the womb space of Mother Earth. To be alive and on a spiritual journey in Santa Fe is to remember that we are all looking for a place to call home.